New Voice: Melanie Bishop on My So-Called Ruined Life

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Melanie Bishop is the first-time author of My So-Called Ruined Life (Torrey House, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Tate McCoy has not spoken to her alcoholic mother in two years, and then her mom is murdered and her father is the prime suspect. 

Convinced of his innocence, Tate takes up swimming and finds solace in her best friend Kale, volunteer work, the great outdoors, and a new crush. 

But after discovering a horrible secret, Tate questions everything she thought she knew about her parents. 

Could you describe both your pre-and-post contract revision process? What did you learn along the way? How did you feel at each stage? What advice do you have for other writers on the subject of revision?

I should confess that I have never been a fan of revision. I preach to my students about its importance, but I am loath to embark on it myself. I want what I write to be right the first time.

A creative writing professor once suggested I’d finally written a decent short story, but he thought it needed a few more drafts. I told him I didn’t like to revise.

I said, in defense of my stance: “I like first drafts; there’s a virginal quality to them.”

I actually used that word virginal. I was that dumb.

This professor, Alan Weisman, who is now a famous writer (The World Without Us and Countdown: Our Last Best Hope for a Future on Earth) was kind enough not to guffaw.

I think he smiled, and then told me when to have the next draft in his faculty mailbox.

A year later, just before graduation from Prescott College, Weisman said: “Melanie, don’t sit back on your potential.”

It was good advice. I knew I had potential; he thought so, too. I thought potential was enough; he knew otherwise.

Many times in the 27 years since that conversation, I’ve had to remind myself of his closing words to me. Not revising an essay, story, memoir or novel is the equivalent of letting that piece of writing sit back on its potential. Quick way not to get published: market all your work in its virginal state.

In some cases, these days, I would much rather revise than go through the turmoil of generating new material–of inventing something new. Revision, once you have a solid first draft, can be so much easier than creating virgins.

But my resistance still shows up, in the writing scenarios that are the hardest.

A young adult novel, My So-Called Ruined Life, just released from Torrey House Press had an unusual revision trajectory. I wrote the book, revised a couple of times, and submitted some chapters to Milkweed Press. An editor there liked what he’d read and asked to see the rest.

Milkweed has a 200 page limit for the young adult genre, so I pruned my book down to 200 pages and sent it in. Several months later, that editor was laid off and the person above him ended up, after many more months, saying “no thanks.”

The next place I sent the manuscript was Torrey House, and they accepted it, with the condition that I amp up the role of the environment in the protagonist’s life, to better address the press’ mission. I immediately knew what I would do, adding a chapter after the climax, and was eager to reenter the world of Tate McCoy without the page restriction. That one chapter turned into four, and they are now my favorite chapters in the book. Such a happy revision tale!

Still much later, my editor there scheduled what was to be a 90-minute conference call. Ninety minutes stretched to over two hours, and the notes I took filled nine notebook pages.

It is safe to say I freaked out. I had been under the mistaken impression that since my development of the nature chapters, the book was done. I was aghast to hear how much the editor still wanted me to do. We’d already sent the manuscript out to half a dozen authors for blurbs; how could it be that I would be expected to change it substantially at this juncture?

As much as I loved this Tate McCoy girl I’d invented, I dreaded going back into revision mode. I was plotting Book Two of the Tate McCoy series, and couldn’t conceive of doing such substantive work on Book One. I put the revision notes from the phone call away and spent the evening complaining to my husband. Why are they making me do this? I’d had several teenagers—kids of friends—read the book and they liked it. Why fix what isn’t broken?

The next day I reread the notes and they no longer came across as extreme. I saw patterns in the suggestions and was able to categorize the notes so that the job looked manageable. I had a month-long retreat coming up, in a remote cabin in the Santa Cruz redwoods and I would tackle these revisions in that time frame. In the end, it took only eight days—four days of the first week and four of the second—and I had a new draft that addressed the entirety of those nine pages of notes. And the book was again a much better book for those eight days spent.

Since this is my most recent experience with revision, I’m a fan of it right now. Revision has been good to me, has done exactly what it’s supposed to do—allowed me to re-see.

I will always wish writing was easier than it actually is. I will wish my first drafts, those lovely virgins, would be deemed brilliant. “Flawless. Don’t change a single word!”

I’d be one of those writers who lets things gestate just long enough in her head to have them come out on paper perfect.

I do have one short story that pretty much wrote itself, and soared through MFA workshop, won an award, and then helped me win a year-long screenwriting fellowship. So I’m not saying it can’t happen—these pure and gorgeous virgins landing on the page. But it’s rare.

Count on having to work your stories over. And over.

You are the pestering partner, always wanting more.

As a teacher-author, how do your two identities inform one another? What about being a teacher has been a blessing to your writing?

Teaching writing makes me a better writer, I think. Some of the basics you cover in the college classroom are things we writers need to remind ourselves of rather constantly. Teaching keeps me in touch with those basics, but, more importantly, teaching keeps me inspired. I’m inspired by my students’ talent and vision and drive.

Now if you’re talking about time, I definitely did not have enough hours for my own writing when I was teaching full-time. But the teaching itself, the dynamic exchange that happens in the classroom, that definitely energizes my work.

I’ve also had whole stories grow out of writing exercises my students assigned during class presentations.

Teaching for me has always been a very good thing, enriching my life and my writing immensely.

I am equal parts teacher and writer, and wouldn’t want to exclude either of these identities.

Cynsational Notes

My So-Called Ruined Life is set in Austin, Texas. Signed stock is available at BookPeople.


“My So-Called Ruined Life” – Book Trailer from Samuel Coodley on Vimeo.

Writing, Tonto & The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die

What images do you recall from childhood?

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

When I think of the quintessential American Indian sidekick in mainstream media, the name that first springs to mind is “Tonto.”

Sorry, Johnny Depp—I adore your Captain Jack Sparrow—but by that, I mean the “faithful Indian companion” depicted by Jay Silverheels (Mohawk), who co-starred in the 1949 to 1957 TV series “The Lone Ranger.”
 
When I was a kid in the 1970s and ’80s, there were only three national television stations, plus a local one. “The Lone Ranger” appeared in re-runs in syndication on my local station in Kansas City.

Errors in framing Tonto’s character abounded (part of Silverheels’ legacy is having played the role and part of it is having later spoofed it). But zeroing in on what I recall from childhood, the most remarkable thing about Tonto was that he existed at all.

Amidst a Western TV-movie tradition in which Indians were depicted as blurring, whooping bogeymen (or winsome primitive “princesses”), Tonto was a main character. Not the hero and stereotypical—but still, there he was. Tonto.

The only other mainstream media “Indian” characters I can recall are those (including winsome, primitive Princess Tiger Lily) from Disney’s 1953 animated film “Peter Pan.”

Of late, the conversation around occasionally forced buzzwords like “multiculturalism” and “diversity” in youth literature has deepened. Champions from writing and illustration, education, library science, bookselling, and within publishing houses are discussing the need for quality quantity. Speaking out matters, and that roar must translate to sales.

Arthur A. Levine/Scholastic, 2014

Vanguard authors from underrepresented communities like Joseph Bruchac, Nancy Garden, Uma Krishnaswami, Walter Dean Myers, Pat Mora, Rita Williams-Garcia, and Laurence Yep have broken ground for a new wave that includes Matt de la Peña, Eric Gansworth, Varian Johnson, Malinda Lo, Guadalupe Garcia McCall, G. Neri, and Varsha Bajaj as well as those who write within and cross-culturally or intersecting communities like Debby Dahl Edwardson, Brent Hartinger, Lynne Kelly, Jane Kurtz, Linda Sue Park, and Trent Reedy.

Meanwhile, our conversation has expanded to include not only characters of various religions, regions, ethnic and national origins and (increasingly) sexual orientations but also characters with a range of gender identities, characters with disabilities and those reflecting a greater range of body types, among others.

We have made strides, though the numbers don’t always show it, and there’s still work to be done.

One way or another, every single one of us is part of this struggle, this transition.

We are the establishment. We are accountable.

We must slay our inner chicken. Punt our inner snail.

Time’s up.

Which brings us to: How?

How do we go about this? Writers are readers, so what are our strategies on both fronts?

For those who write within and/or outside personal experience, how do we honor and craft stories for the young readers of today and beyond?

I bet they saw “Peter Pan” as kids, too.

This past week I received a message every single day from a different non-Indian writer, asking me how to approach children’s-YA fiction with Native American characters.

That’s right, every single day for a week.

In the past, I’ve received such queries now and then—never before in a deluge.

All expressed concern about their responsibility to diversity and to getting it right. They care. Caring leads to communication.

That said, it’s not hard to understand resistance to the conversation. There’s peril in addressing subject matter so emotionally charged, and at times, we all fret finding the right words. There’s also a lingering tension, a frustration that some of us experience in feeling obliged to articulate what seems self-evident to us but isn’t always to our friends and colleagues.

How does any of that help?

It doesn’t.

So more and more, writers find ourselves talking with each other about these issues. For example, on the same afternoon, I met with a white writer who felt he’d be unfairly targeted with criticism and with a Mexican-American author so concerned that a story based on her own childhood wasn’t sufficiently “representative” that she was on the verge of giving up…giving up writing altogether.

Enough.

Take a breath. Let it out. Repeat as necessary.

Truth is, all authors worry about doing our best work and connecting with readers. Or at least we should. I know I do. I write both within and across. My latest story, a romance-friendship short, is told from the perspective a black, male, gay guardian angel. We all must stretch to some degree.

Is there one right way to write? Definitely not.
My own process has evolved over time and depending on the demands of
each manuscript. But writing defensively tends to be self-defeating. We can’t anticipate every reader’s politics or pet peeves, and even if we could, trying to placate them all would result in bland, banal mush.

Let’s take risks, learn from our mistakes, and set aside our longing for bright-line rules, our quest for a single formula. It’s never going to be that easy.

An example: I’ve heard it said—as though the matter were settled—that we should no longer write Native characters or those of color as best friends. The concern is that “tossing in” a minority best friend/sidekick is a halfhearted attempt at diversity, and in doing so, defaults to stereotypes.

There’s validity to the implied critique. It’s the tossing, I suspect, that’s the problem.

Roaring Brook (spring 2014)

Or, put another way, it was Greg Leitich Smith who jokingly suggested I title this post “The Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die.”

I mostly went with it, even though I opened with Tonto, who neither cracked wise nor died first, though…in his particular case…it might’ve actually improved the character if he had.

I know Tonto. I’m familiar with the stereotypes. I grew up with them, and so did most of you.

But do we really want it to follow that in any story with a, say, white, straight, able-bodied protagonist, the best friend can never be Lebanese-American or Korean-Canadian or transgendered?

That would quickly decrease representation, and kids crave it in roles both big and small.

Besides, what if the author doesn’t feel ready to take on writing, say, a cross-cultural protagonist? Does that mean her supporting casts must always be uniformly of her same culture, orientation, religion, body type, etc.?

What purpose does that serve? What is the cost?

On the other hand, because the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die trope (or, in fairness, combination of tropes) has become so prevalent, it’s worth second-guessing ourselves to ensure we don’t descend into cliché. (And it’s by no means the only trope that merits second-guessing—just the one we’re considering right now.)

In writing fiction, we focus on characters—especially protagonists and antagonists—as well as plot, setting, any speculative constructs, and watch for themes to arise.

Authorial sensibility is crucial. It’s also tricky, sinking deep into our subconscious. We can only be so aware of it. But we can develop a more inclusive, more socially aware sensibility with nurturing.

True, characters have sensibilities of their own, sometimes in direct contradiction to ours. Of course they will have flaws and make mistakes. Some of them may be genuinely lousy individuals. (I have written Lucifer. I am not the devil.) But how we frame our characters’ thoughts and behaviors, to varying degrees, still comes back to us.

Steps to Consider in Creating a World with Diverse Characters

It’s within our power to:

  • Widen our range of model texts. Study books by the authors mentioned above and then keep reading. It’s a small sampling, one of many places to begin.
  • Pay attention to the conversation around literature and diversity. I routinely highlight related articles and books here at Cynsations. 
  • Weigh various viewpoints, competing viewpoints. Realize there will always be exceptions, and that sometimes seemingly contradictory truths can co-exist.
  • Consider (and reconsider) our vision for representation within our own body of work and our reasons for it. The exercise of articulating one’s philosophy can be illuminating. 
  • Remember that execution is everything. 
  • Ask ourselves the tough questions. Be honest in our answers.
  • Write from the heart.

Together these steps can increase our understanding, our resources, and what we bring to bear.

Tough Questions

When I say “tough questions,” what do I mean?

Enter the six-book giveaway!

Enough with the abstracts. I’ll step up. Once I have a novel draft, along with a myriad of craft considerations, I gut-check my cast. The goal is to reflect and weigh assumptions, to question impulses and instincts.

My latest novel, Feral Curse (Book 2 in the Feral trilogy), introduces a secondary character, Jess Bigheart. Jess is the best friend of Kayla Morgan, who offers one of the alternating points of view, along with fellow protagonist Yoshi Kitahara.

Avoiding spoilers as best I can (but—fair warning—not 100%), here’s roughly how that shakes out with Jess:

Jess is a Native American. This can’t come as a huge surprise. Am I going to craft a fantasy world, based on this real one, without any Native people in it?

Obviously, no. American Indians are in this world. American Indians are in that one. Attentive readers of the previous books have already noticed a brushstroke or two to that effect.

Jess doesn’t get a lot of screen time, though it looks like she’ll have a larger role in Book 3, “Feral Pride.” But cue the raised brow. Jess, a Native American, is Kayla’s best friend.

Is she Tonto? Is she the “faithful Indian companion”?

Let’s briefly address that and go more global. I’m by no means talking only about writing Native characters. There are considerations specific to each community, which merit conversations unto themselves. But there’s also common ground.

Is she a stock character or stereotype?

Skimming the pages… Jess is a high school student who lives in fictional, small-town Pine Ridge, Texas. She has thick curly hair. She’s an Osage girl, a citizen of Osage Nation in Oklahoma and has ties to the urban Indian community in Austin. She’s the local sheriff’s daughter, and the relationship between her and her dad is great. They go fishing together. She helps out part-time at his office.

What else? Jess is close to her sisters. She’s played soccer and studied ballet. She likes superhero and sci-fi movies (I adore geeky characters). I could go on, but Jess is an individual.

Note: If Jess had a smaller role, like a walk-on or cameo, would the same level of development be necessary? No, a few brushstrokes might do. But just because it wouldn’t all appear on the page doesn’t relieve us for thinking it through.

“Dances with Smurfs”?

Is she the exotic (related to stock, but with its own spin)?

In a novel where the characters include shape-shifters, a ghost, a yeti-like boy and a near-south Austinite?

She’s arguably the most typical YA character in the story.

Besides, Jess isn’t the only Native or “minority” character and, for that matter, she’s not the only significant human character either.

Is she a diminished/”magical” character

Is she only there to impart Yoda-like wisdom or to make the protagonist(s) look good?

Feral Curse is Kayla’s story (and, to a lesser degree, Yoshi’s), but Jess holds her own. I can’t explain without spoilers, but Jess isn’t there purely to bolster Kayla (or Kevin Costner). They each have their moments.

Note: The “magical minority” usually involves stories featuring a white, straight, able-bodied, etc. protagonist, which doesn’t apply. Kayla is black, a werecat adopted from Ethiopia by African-American human parents. Yoshi is a Eurasian (Japanese) werecat, newly relocated to Austin from rural Kansas. However, even where the protagonist isn’t white, straight, able-bodied, etc., the question is still worth considering.

Does she die first?

Horror fans should especially appreciate this question. I’m not going to tell you the answer. The series has its share of life-and-death suspense. But suffice it to say, I’m not spending a lot of time on this question for Jess.

Note: It’s not that the “minority” best friend should never die or be in jeopardy. We don’t want automatically safe characters any more than too-disposable ones. Instead, we should weigh our motivations, what’s accomplished and why.

Is she “a model minority”?

Both Jess and Kayla are keeping secrets from each other, but Jess also spills info that maybe she shouldn’t. In my draft of book 3, nobody’s playing strictly by society’s rules, Jess included (society is bent, verging on broken). She’s a good kid, but not perfect.

Does heritage/identity/culture/etc. inform the character?

Yes. Will non-Indian readers notice? Maybe. Will Native readers pick up on it? Not necessarily, but probably most of them will.

In my latest revision of Book 3, I reconsidered Jess’s role in a scene and realized, for culturally-based reasons, she should disagree with Kayla and say so. I revised accordingly.

Not because all Native people always think the same or are raised the same way, but because of this specific character under those specific circumstances. I’d missed it before because I was so deep into Yoshi’s point of view.

Note: The extent to which this question comes into play will vary, depending on the story. We don’t want characters so identity obsessed/trapped that they never get off the ground. They shouldn’t be two-dimensional excuses for social studies lessons or to score political points.

Teen Cyn

What will young readers think of her? How about teens she reflects?

Sometimes we get so wrapped up in our own intent, however benevolent, that we forget to consider impact.

Are there limits to our ability to do so? Sure, but if we’re writing a related character, we’re already stretching in that direction.

I hope Osage/Native teens will like Jess and her dad. Some may wonder about my choice of “Pine Ridge” for the name of the town. One has already written to ask me if it’s a wink. I love that, “a wink.” In any case, they’re not going to shrink in their seats if this book is read aloud in class.

Note: How about small-town teens? Texans? Girls? Geeks? Identity is a bundled package.

This isn’t to say that a character of any background can’t be an antagonist, even a villain. We want to reflect the full range of humanity. With characters wrapped in a fantasy construct (like werecats), that burden is even higher. But let’s ask ourselves if we’re using identity markers as shorthand for inferiority, malice, or stereotypical traits. Maybe not intentionally, but simply from having absorbed certain predispositions as members of our overarching society.

Sometimes we choose not to reinforce everyone’s comfort zone. Remember my black, male, gay guardian angel? His name is Joshua, and he first debuted in Eternal (Candlewick, 2009).

I routinely write heroic characters of faith. Kayla Morgan and Jess Bigheart from Feral Curse, for example. Cassidy Rain Berghoff from Rain Is Not My Indian Name (HarperCollins, 2001) and Ray Halfmoon from Indian Shoes (HarperCollins, 2002). It concerns me that people of faith constitute an underrepresented group in children’s-YA literature.

At the same time, I know religion is sometimes cited as a justification for homophobia. I’ve been asked why I found it “necessary” to write gay secondary characters like Ruby, Sergio, Harrison, Freddy and Evie. But if a few readers are put off by Joshua, so be it.

I stand with my angels.

Big Picture

Again, the Wise-Cracking Minority Sidekick Who Is the First to Die isn’t the only trope(s) or issue to consider. These are by no means the only questions, merely a sampling. They can be applied to characters with various combinations of identity markers.

I’ve mentally clicked through them (and more) for all of my own characters, including Aimee who’s a white, middle class, straight, able-bodied, self-described “Goth girl/geek girl/New Age hippie girl.” Her point being, she’s more than a label. She won’t be stuck in a box.

Do I move forward only if I have ideal answers to each question?

No, they’re tools, not chains.

Now available in paperback & on audio

Take Yoshi. I don’t love that he’s a fantastical person—a werecat—and the only Asian/Eurasian American character in this book. But Pine Ridge is loosely based on Bastrop, Texas.

Bastrop’s largest minority populations are African American (17 percent) and Latino of any race (almost 18 percent). I already have Native characters in a town wherein its model has a less than one percent population (one family).

Granted, Yoshi’s not a Eurasian American human. He’s a Puma concolor sapiens. Yes, he earns his Cat status. His shifter abilities, societal situation and sensibility all come into play.

He has his feral moments, which don’t quite line up with preferred societal behavior, in the way that werecats (or–cough–teenagers) sometimes do.

But in my experience, only grown-ups will split hairs in gauging his representativeness. Teens will view him as reflecting Japanese or Eurasian Americans and werecats. And they crave diverse heroes in speculative fiction. They want the world to root for them like we do for Katniss Everdeen and Harry Potter. Remember: Anybody can be a hero that everybody cheers.

In fictionalizing, I can tweak, but introducing another Asian American character, for the sake of it, might feel forced. It could jolt readers out of the story in the same way the lack of Asians/Asian Americans sometimes jolts this devoted Whedonite out of “Firefly”/“Serenity” and Buffyverse.

On the upside, there are Asian American human characters previously featured in the Tantalize-Feral universe. That’s the best I can do right now.

Meanwhile, given the focus on shifters, I framed to indicate that “of color” doesn’t suggest “animal.” The diversity within my cast pushes against it. The humans of color, the shifters who project WASP. Clyde Gilbert, a Wild Card Lossum (Lion-Possum), is a co-protagonist and presents as a white boy. 

As for Kayla, I’ve looked twice at her as a model minority. She’s at the top of her high school class, has an engineering scholarship to Cal Tech, and is a track and cross-country state champion. Her dad is the mayor, effectively making her the first daughter of Pine Ridge. On the other hand, she underestimates people who love her, arguably takes advantage of her cheetah-like speed, and keeps secrets from her parents. We weigh competing traits, the reasons behind them, and go from there.

Does heritage/identity/culture inform my leads?

Feral Curse features an Asian-American guy and a “dark-skinned girl” as dynamic, attractive headline heroes (despite hopefully fading prejudices to the contrary).

The super-arc over the series focuses on conflicts between different species within the Homo genus—Homo sapiens, Homo shifters (including subgroups) and Homo deific.

Thematic questions include: What makes us human, and what makes us humane?

The nature of those tensions have real-world parallels. Brushstrokes illuminate the real-world context. The magic is in the metaphor.

The tone isn’t heavy-handed. My characters are adept at wit and humor. They’re plugged into pop culture. It’s fast-paced adventure-fantasy, after all. I tell teens the story is about “spec-fic geeks in a spec-fic world.” But however (hopefully seamlessly) interwoven, there’s no way around it. That construct is unusual. In children’s-YA publishing, it could be interpreted as a statement.

I respect my YA readers. I trust them.

Within the story, I largely let it speak for itself.

I’m on facebook & @CynLeitichSmith.

Might another writer handle it differently?

Might she make different judgment calls with casting? Might he emphasize theme in a different way? Might an apprentice using my book as a model wish I’d done something else?

Yes, please.

The point is not the results of my abbreviated sample analysis but that we all engage. We ask questions and wrestle with answers. Sometimes we make changes. Sometimes we don’t.

And hey…hey you, over in the corner! Yes, you!

Remember what I said about breathing?

Don’t panic. Maybe you’re still trying to figure out what “point of view” means. Maybe you’re doing well to write what you do know, let alone beyond it. Maybe you’re a teen writer, seeking refuge in Story. That’s okay. Really, it is.

What we feel ready to do and when? Those are deeply personal questions. Ones each of us has to answer for ourselves. Every manuscript—from apprentice to contracted—has its limits and possibilities. Every writer does, too, but that balance shifts over the course of our creative journeys.

It’s like exercise. Forcing a performance goal before we’re ready tempts injury. Working steadily toward it may be a smoother path to success.

Give yourself permission to grow. In the meantime, do what we all should be doing to support diversity in children’s-YA publishing.

  • Step up as a reader, a noise-maker, a library advocate and bookstore consumer. 
  • Talk to young people about reading and writing and publishing. 
  • Welcome new voices into the writing life. 
  • Mentor, when you’re ready. 
  • Share your knowledge of the craft and industry. 
  • S-t-r-e-t-c-h and celebrate.

Forget Tonto.

Actor Jay Silverheels’ legacy is fascinating, layered and contradictory. It still generates strong feelings in his Native and non-Indian audiences, both pro and con.

Did you know he was a boxer and a lacrosse player and a stuntman? He appeared with Humphrey Bogart in “Key Largo” (1948). His birth name was Harold J. Smith.

I’ve been contemplating his work with the Indian Actors’ Workshop. It inspired me consider and reconsider his career. It prompted me to reflect on creative communities and ponder the importance of each of us, in whatever way we can, reaching within and beyond ourselves.

Cynsational Notes


 

Hello again. Did you watch the video of the Indian Actor’s Workshop? How about the video, “Jay Silverheels: The Man Behind the Mask?” Did
you see the children in each?

Consider what was said. Consider what went unsaid, and then reconsider all of the above.

Discussion Guide

My inspiration for this post was a Jan. 17th article in Indian Country Today, reporting that the real “Lone Ranger” was an African American who lived with the Muscogee Creeks and Seminoles. It made me to think about the Hollywood version of the story, about my own stories for young readers, and, in turn, the body of youth literature more globally. (That, plus the recent uptick in writer inquiries, led to this post.)

It also reminded me of Vaunda Micheaux Nelson’s Coretta Scott King Award book Bad News for Outlaws: The Remarkable Life of Bass Reeves, Deputy U.S. Marshal, illustrated by R. Gregory Christie (Carolrhoda, 2009).

I’m mentally folding the practice of consulting beta readers/experts under “the conversation around literature and diversity,” but quickly:

  • Be gracious, appreciative, patient and respectful; 
  • Don’t presume anyone owes you their knowledge or time;
  • Recognize diversity within communities (i.e., “Native” isn’t necessarily “Osage”);
  • Seek more than one point of view; 
  • Listen and apply advice, even if it means taking “no” for an answer;  
  • Sometimes silence equals “no” for an answer (sometimes your message is lost in spam);
  • Where recommendations are irreconcilable, perhaps address the issue in your author’s note or, if possible, consider making due without (or writing around) that content; 
  • Don’t use sources’/readers’ names without express permission;
  • Reference sources/readers in an “any-mistakes-are-mine” way, not as human body shields.

Benjamin Alire Sáenz by Larry D. Moore

While writers can (and increasingly do) successfully write beyond our own identity markers, life experience does matter, and voices from underrepresented communities should be nurtured, sought out and held up as models.

For example, to say that (my literary crush) Benjamin Alire Sáenz’s personal background hasn’t enriched and informed his writing strikes me as ridiculous (of course his commitment to developing his literary art played the decisive role).

At the same time, should Ben elect to craft a story about, say, tapestry-weaving dragons from an alternate dimension, I will be first in line to purchase and marvel over it.

My sample analysis goes beyond one book because Feral Curse is part of a trilogy, which spun off from the pre-existing Tantalize series, set in the same universe. So, I consider each novel both as a stand-alone and as part of the whole.

Check out Writing Cross-Culturally and 10 Resources for Writing Cross-Culturally from Lee & Low.

Feral Curse is now available in hardcover and e-book and Feral Nights is now available in hardcover, e-book and paperback from Candlewick Press in North America. Both novels are likewise now available on audio from Brilliance. The series is also published by Walker Books in the U.K. and Walker Australia and New Zealand. For more information, see Feral Curse: Giant Steps Through the Ashes. At that link, you can also enter a six-book giveaway, sponsored by Candlewick Press.

The term “vanguard authors” is borrowed with great affection from the Brown Bookshelf, partly as an excuse to urge you to check out 28 Days Later, a currently ongoing Black History Month celebration of children’s-YA authors and illustrators.

Tropes are not necessarily bad. As Television Tropes and Idioms points out, “Tropes are devices and conventions that a writer can reasonably rely on as being present in the audience members’ minds and expectations. On the whole, tropes are not clichés. The word ‘clichéd’ means ‘stereotyped and trite.'”

Harry Shum, Jr.; by Gage Skidmore

The Joshua short story I reference is tentatively titled “Cupid’s Beaux” and will appear in Things I’ll Never Say, Short Stories about Our Secret Selves, edited by Ann Angel (Candlewick, spring 2015).

For you “Buffy: The Vampire Slayer” fans, Greg Leitich Smith has this theory that U.C. Sunnydale has such a low Asian-American population because it’s simply not that good of a school. Yes, he thinks he’s hilarious.

On a related note, check out Secret Asian Man, My Husband, Yoshi Kitahara & Feral Nights. Peek: “I distinctly remember…being a teenager, sitting in the front
seat of a parked car one night, talking to my then best girlfriend and
admitting that I found it hard to imagine ever being attracted to an
Asian guy…. Doesn’t sound like me, does it?”

I’ve never seen “Avatar” (2009), so I can’t comment on it per se but am rather nodding to the “South Park” episode that spoofed it. I’m not a regular “South Park” viewer, but that one caught my attention. Note: I haven’t seen Johnny Depp’s “The Lone Ranger” (2013) either.

Yes, the Pine Ridge town name is “a wink.” What it means should become clear in the future. On a more literal note, the Bastrop region is home to the famous Texas lost pines.

With regard to the “model minority,” I linked to the “Glee” episode, “Asian F” (2011), which features a parody of the stereotype and is one of my fave episodes. I’m a fan of Harry Shum, Jr., who plays glee-club member, dancer extraordinaire, and emerging singer Mike Chang.

Are you still reading? That’s tremendously generous. My first instinct was to split the post into three parts or reduce the word count by half. But upon reconsideration, I decided to settle in for a while. I appreciate that you cared enough to join me. Thank you.

Guest Post: Kristen Simmons on The Toddler-hood of Publishing

Kristen writing in her son’s fort

By Kristen Simmons
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

My third book comes out this February – the last book in the Article 5 series – and though I feel fortunate to have additional stand alone titles to follow it in the coming years, I can’t help but feel like a very important part of my life is coming to a close.

My first series will be done, which still blows me away when I think of how I waited ten years to see my first book on a shelf.

I have held my work in my hands, traveled to share it with others, and spoken about it at conferences.

I now know about the mysterious world of publishing.

Which is, to say, I know just how much I don’t know.

Find Kristen at facebook & Twitter

Trust me. Just when you think you’ve got it decently figured out, something comes along to throw you off course. A bad review comes in. Then another. And another.

Your revisions are just not right. Your editor informs you that you have been using “more or less” wrong in every draft of every novel you’ve sent her way (which is now five).

But that’s not to say I haven’t learned anything over the last few years. I’m in a constant state of learning. And being the mom of toddler, I can tell you that these journeys are not so different.

When my son does something awesome like puts away his toys, or doesn’t throw his spaghetti in my face, we celebrate. We make a big deal out of the little things. I have done a record-breaking number of happy dances this year for eating broccoli or not pulling the dog’s tail.

On the flip side, we don’t focus on the negative. We are trying to teach him to recognize hurt, sadness, and anger, but not to drown in them. Not to stay down every time he falls. To adapt, adjust, and move forward.

Watching him has made me realize I’ve now entered the toddler-hood of publishing.

I’m not good at celebrating victories. I am, however, exceptional at focusing on my faults.

At least I was. I’ve realized that if you don’t recognize your own accomplishments, you don’t know when you’re going the right direction. I like writing too much not to feel good about it.

I’ve learned not to dwell on negative reviews, or focus on how much more successful my writer friends are.

I have to move forward, because if I stay in that space too long, I’ll get stuck.

I don’t want my son to live in a perpetual tantrum because he didn’t get another cookie, and I don’t want to not feel the excitement, and gratitude, and kinship that have become such an important part of my life through these books.

I guess what I’m trying to say is this: I’m not afraid of the bumps in the road anymore. They still trip me up, but I don’t let them keep me down.

Guest Post: Lesléa Newman on In Writing I Trust

By Lesléa Newman
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

Sometimes a book is years in the making. And the writer doesn’t even know that it is gestating.

Such is the case with my book, October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012). Unbeknownst to me, I started writing the book on October 12, 1998.

On that Monday morning, I flew to Denver, Colorado, where I was met by a University of Wyoming student who would be taking me to Laramie. The student and I didn’t talk much. She looked tired and told me that she had been up all night. This didn’t surprise me. Her entire campus was in an uproar: that morning, a gay student named Matthew Shepard had died in the hospital where he’d been taken after being kidnapped, robbed, beaten, tied to a fence, and left to die.

Today was the start of the university’s Gay Awareness Week and I was the keynote speaker. My talk, which focused on my children’s book, Heather Has Two Mommies (Alyson Books), and how education can end bigotry and hatred, could not have been more relevant.

After giving my talk, I met many of Matthew Shepard’s friends, including the members of the school’s Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual, and Transgendered Association, all of whom sat in the front row. In the middle of the row was an empty seat. I kept imagining Matthew Shepard sitting there.

Matt on the phone

Before I left campus, I promised Matt’s friends that I would do all I could to keep his name alive. But I didn’t know it would take me eleven years to figure out a way to do so.

Flash forward to 2009. I was coming towards the end of my two-year term of as poet laureate of Northampton, Massachusetts. I wanted to go out with a bang. What could I give back to the community, that had given me the honor of being an ambassador of poetry?

I created a project called “Thirty Poems in Thirty Days.” During the month of November, I would gather a group of poets together who would write a poem a day for 30 days. The poets would find people to pledge a monetary amount per poem. The money collected would go to a local literacy group. We’d end the month with a public reading.

By November first, everything was in order: 75 poets had signed up and all of them had impressive pledges. As did I. There was only one problem: now I had to come up with something to write about.

On October 12, 2009, the eleventh anniversary of Matthew Shepard’s death, “The Laramie Project Part II: The Epilogue” was performed in 150 cities all across the country. I attended a performance, which consisted of monologues constructed from interviews of many of the key players in the tragedy including police officers, townspeople, Matthew Shepard’s parents, and the two murderers.

What I wanted to know was what actually happened during the 15 minutes that Matt and his murderers were at the fence. If only there had been witnesses.

Then I had the aha! moment I had been waiting more than a decade for. There were witnesses to Matt’s murder. The fence he was tied to was there. The starts were there. The moon was there. Animals were there. His clothing was there. What about the rope that bound his hands? The pistol that was used to strike him in the face?

As a poet, I could inhabit those inanimate objects, hear what they had to say, and learn what I could about had happened.

That’s crazy, I said to myself, but then the words of my mentor, Allen Ginsberg, came back to me: First Thought Best Thought. In other words, go with your idea, no matter how wacky it sounds and don’t let your own internal censor stop you. Trust the writer within.

What I learned from writing October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard was this:

  • It is important to write every day. You never know where your pen will lead you. 
  • Each of us is a treasure chest of experience, imagination, and observation. Our stories are inside of us, waiting to be told. 
  • No idea is too farfetched to try.

THE FENCE
(that night)

I held him all night long
He was heavy as a broken heart
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing

He was heavy as a broken heart
His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
He was dead weight yet he kept breathing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood

His own heart wouldn’t stop beating
The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
His face streaked with moonlight and blood
I tightened my grip and held on

The cold wind wouldn’t stop blowing
We were out on the prairie alone
I tightened my grip and held on
I saw what was done to this child

We were out on the prairie alone
Their truck was the last thing he saw
I saw what was done to this child
I cradled him just like a mother

Their truck was the last thing he saw
Tears fell from his unblinking eyes
I cradled him just like a mother
I held him all night long

October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard. Copyright @2012 by Lesléa Newman. Reproduced by permission of the publisher, Candlewick Press, Somerville, MA.


Cynsational Notes

Lesléa will read from and discuss October Mourning: A Song for Matthew Shepard (Candlewick, 2012) at 7:30 p.m. March 5 at BookWoman in Austin.

 

In Memory: Maxine Kumin

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Maxine Kumin in The New Yorker by Paul Muldoon from The New Yorker. Peek: “Her poems…have the virtue of being meticulously observed and of dealing plainly with the things of the world.” Note: article includes audio of Maxine reading.

Maxine Kumin, Pulitzer-Winning Poet With a Naturalist’s Precision, Dies at 88 by Margalit Fox from The New York Times. Peek: “The author of essays, novels, short stories and children’s books as well as poetry, Ms. Kumin…was praised by critics for her keen ear for the aural character of verse — the clash and cadence of meter, the ebb and flow of rhyme — and her naturalist’s eye for minute observation.”

From Candlewick Press: “She wrote poetry, essays, novels and children’s books, including the picture book What Color is Caesar? which we were proud to publish in 2010.”

From Shelf Awareness (quoting TNYT): “A poetry collection, And Short the Season (Norton), is scheduled to be published this spring, as is Lizzie! (Triangle Square/Seven Stories Press), ‘a partly autobiographical novel for young adults about a girl coping with a spinal-cord injury….'”

From W.W. Norton & Co.: “…she muses on mortality: her own and that of the earth. Always deeply personal, always political, these poems blend myth and modernity, fecundity and death, and the violence and tenderness of humankind.” Note: read from Maxine’s “Whereof the Gift Is Small.”

Cynsational Notes

Lizzie by Maxine Kumin, illustrated by Elliott Gilbert (Seven Stories, March 11, 2014). From the promotional copy:

America, meet Lizzie Peterlinz, age 11. Paralyzed below the waist after slipping off a diving board two years ago, Lizzie does not let her wheelchair get in the way of her curiosity.


She and her single mother are starting life over in a small town in Florida, where Lizzie’s hunger for knowledge and adventure lead her to some unlikely friends. 

She bonds with Josh, the only other disabled kid at her school, and they rejoice in normal kid activities, despite the awkward stares they face at school. And she and her mother make friends with some elderly neighbors, Teresa and Digger Martinez, who become Lizzie’s adopted grandparents, teaching her Spanish and encouraging her to embrace her life, difficulties and all.


One of Lizzie’s favorite things to do is visit a run-down roadside petting zoo, run by a slow-moving gentle giant Lizzie and her mom affectionately call Henry the Huge. One afternoon, as Lizzie is exploring the fields behind the petting zoo, she comes across a shack full of screeching monkeys and the mysterious boy who cares for them.


A man with a slick grin arrives on the scene, and Lizzie begins to uncover where the monkeys came from.


With Josh and Digger’s help, she puts the pieces together, but it’s too late, the monkey thief strikes again and this time, it’s Lizzie who’s in danger.

In Memory: Erik Blegvad

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Obituary: Erik Blegvad from Publishers Weekly. Peek: “Acclaimed illustrator Erik Blegvad, whose artwork appeared in more than 100 children’s books, several of them by his wife, Lenore Blegvad (1926-2008), died on January 14 at the age of 90. Born in Copenhagen in 1923, Blegvad worked as an artist or illustrator from the earliest days of his career, in his hometown as well as in London and Paris.”

Children’s Illustrator Erik Blegvad Dies from Contact Music: “Blegvad studied at the Copenhagen School of Arts and Crafts and worked as a commercial illustrator in Paris, France before he moved to the U.S. in 1950 and began contributing to American magazines.”

Children’s book artist Erik Blegvad dies at 90 by Gregory Katz from U-T San Diego. Peek: “Among his best known works are the illustrations for ‘Bed-Knob and Broomstick,’ ‘The Tenth Good Thing About Barney’ and his own translation of Hans Christian Andersen’s ‘Stories and Fairy Tales.'”

Cynsational News & Giveaways


By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Congratulations to Jill Santopolo on the debut of the Sparkle Spa series (Simon & Schuster, 2014). From the promotional copy:

Sisters Aly and Brooke love spending time at their mom’s popular and successful nail salon—it’s their “home away from home.” At the end of another incredibly busy day, Mom complains she is completely overwhelmed at work, even more so by all the kids who come to have manis and pedis. 

That’s when the sisters have a brilliant idea: Why don’t they open up a mini nail salon just for kids within Mom’s store?

More News & Giveaways

Pete Hautman on The Book That Will Save Us from Janni Lee Simner at Desert Dispatches. Peek: “You see, we are all drowning, and that is the reason we keep writing, because every new book is the book that will float us above and away from (choose three) irrelevance, poverty, mediocrity, madness, obscurity, obloquy, ourselves.” See also That We May Live by Marion Dane Bauer.

Religion in YA Lit by Aaron Hartzler from CBC Diversity. Peek: “Here are five common stumbling blocks I’ve seen when it comes to writing about religion for teens, and a corresponding book that I think pulls it off with flying colors.” See also Thoughts on Jewish Story by Erika Dreifus from The Whole Megillah.

How to Help An Author (Beyond Buying the Book) Part I by Jen Malone from Writers’ Rumpus. Peek: “High presales also encourage booksellers to offer extra marketing attention and prime in-store placement to those titles.” See Part II. See also (Less Than) Great Expectations by Brittany Geragotelis from Adventures in YA Publishing.

Query.Sign.Submit with Agent John Cusick from I Write for Apples. Peek: “Some folks are fabulous first-draft writers, but have a hard time editing. Others are a mess to begin with, but the manuscript improves 200% with every revise. Everyone’s different, but I need to know a prospective client can get the book where it needs to be before I can start contacting editors.”

What I Learned about Depression from Francisco X. Stork. Peek: “I’m one of those who agree with Ursula K. Le Guin
that ‘one of the things fiction does is lead you to recognize what you did not know before.’ I thought I knew about depression before I started writing the book (my long-time experience with this illness was why I agreed to write it), but there were attitudes, feelings thoughts about depression that I now recognize for the first time.”

Casual Diversity and the Children’s Book by Elizabeth Bird from School Library Journal. Peek: “She’d been talking with her friends and they decided that what they’d really like would be a list of children’s books in which diversity is just a part of everyday life.” See Mitali Perkins on “Casual Diversity” Depends on the Unseen Work of the Author from Mitali’s Fire Escape. See also Strategies for Supporting Latino Children’s Literature by Celia C. Perez from All Brown All Around.

Choosing Our Mystery’s Murderer from Elizabeth Spann Craig. Peek: “Mystery writers that I’ve met tend to fall into a couple of different groups—writers who have picked their killer before they start writing their story (or early in their draft) and those who decide by the end of the book who the killer will be.”

On Quiet Novels by Lisa Schroeder from Crowe’s Nest. Peek: “It’s in the details – the little things that make the reader go ‘ooooh.'” See also The Heartache and Triumph of Rejection by Hilary Wagner from Project Mayhem.

Ask Questions to Help Find Your Story by C.S. Lakin from Angela Ackerman at Writers Helping Writers. Peek: “Thousands of hours of critiquing and editing have led me to notice that there are some questions I seem to ask a lot. Which tells me there are some general gaps that many writers have in common in their novel-constructing process.”

Conference Dos & Don’ts by Rosie Genova from QueryTracker Blog. Peek: “Business casual is the way to go, and unless you’re wearing sequins or a tuxedo, slightly overdressing (a day dress, a skirt and cardigan, a shirt and tie for the guys) is rarely a mistake.”

The Clearance Kids by e.E. Charlton-Trujillo from The Huffington Post. Peek: “These students inked with gang tattoos, dyed green punk hair, post teen pregnancy appearances or linebacker-sized guys with hidden identities who don’t conform to the norm of traditional high school, soon became my heroes.”

Boys Will be Boys and Girls Will Be Accommodating: Problems with Gendered Reading from Laurel Snyder. Peek: “By suggesting that on the whole our boys have a limited capacity for empathy, an inability to imagine a world beyond their own most obvious understanding, and an unwillingness to stretch. In the same stroke, we neglect our girls.”

Children’s Literature Inspires Compassion for Animals from Betsy Devany’s Blog. Peek: “…a couple of elderly dogs just appeared on our porch. They were wet and hungry, and Ava squealed when she saw them. ‘It’s like Because of Winn-Dixie!’ she said. ‘And we have to save them, Grandma. Kate DiCamillo would want us to save them.'”

C.S. Jennings illustrates Greg Leitich Smith

Interview with Author-Illustrator C.S. Jennings by Greg Leitich Smith from GregLSBlog. Peek: “When I receive a manuscript for a chapter book, I am looking for the places in the text where I can share moments that will grip the reader. Whether it’s an emotion, some fun character, or cool element, I ask myself, ‘What would I want to see as the reader?’ Admittedly, sometimes it’s ‘What do I want to draw? ‘Ah, sweet! Spaceships!'”

Some Economic Straight Talk: Robin LaFevers on The Economics of Frugality, Abundance, and Creativity from Writer Unboxed. Peek: “If there can be said to be any averages in publishing, then the average kid lit advances look something like this….” Note: Robin, a successful and acclaimed trade middle grade-YA author, breaks down her annual income (and its context) since 2002.

Writing Habits: Getting Back on Track by Kristi Holl from Writer’s First Aid. Peek: “Several writers I’ve read lately say that if you’ve been away from your writing for a week or more, you can expect about ten days of writing that is no more fun than getting teeth pulled when you start again.”

Children’s-YA Book Awards & Lists

2014 Dolly Gray Award Winners, recognizing “authors, illustrators, and publishers of high quality fictional and biographical children, intermediate, and young adult books that appropriately portray individuals with developmental disabilities,” are Remember Dippy by Shirley Reva Vernick (Cinco Puntos) and Memoirs of an Imaginary Friend by Matthew Dicks (St. Martin’s).

Outstanding Books for the College Bound & Lifelong Learners from YALSA. Categories:

The 2013 Cybils Awards: Children’s & Young Adult Bloggers’ Literary Awards.

Cynsational Screening Room

Congratulations to Lorie Ann Grover on the release of Firstborn (Blink, 2014). Peek from the promotional copy: “Where does a firstborn girl fit in a world dominated by men? When Tiadone was born, her parents had two choices: leave their daughter outside the community to die in the wilds, or raise her as male and force her to suppress all feminine traits.” See also the Cover Story from readergirlz.


 

Author Janet Fox celebrates January/February new releases.


 

Cynsational Giveaways

Enter to win one of three copies of Feral Curse or one of three paperback copies of Feral Nights (both by Cynthia Leitich Smith and published by Candlewick). Publisher sponsored. Eligibility: North America.

In honor of Black History Month, Lee & Low is giving away two copies of Dear Mrs. Parks: A Dialogue with Today’s Youth, personally signed by Rosa Parks at facebook. Deadline: Feb. 26. Eligibility: U.S. only.

 

28 Days Later

28 Days Later is “a Black History Month celebration of emerging and established children’s book creators of color” from the Brown Bookshelf.

This Week at Cynsations

Austin SCBWI Conference

Last week’s highlights included the Austin SCBWI Annual Conference.

Author Cynthia Leitich Smith & writer-poet-illustrator Anna Boll
Authors Liz Garton Scanlon & Lindsey Lane with author-illustrator Keith Graves
Fantasy springs from fiction at the silent auction.
Greg Leitich Smith shows off this cake typewriter by Akiko White.
Greg & author-illustrator Don Tate in his Armadillustrators fez
Keynoter Matt de la Peña & Austin RA Samantha Clark
Nikki, Cyn, Liz & Austin SCBWI founder Meredith Davis

More Personally

Happy Valentine’s Day to those who celebrate it! A shout out to my valentine, Greg Leitich Smith! Click over to GregLSBlog to check out his Dino-A-Day special illustration by C.S. Jennings!

Exciting news! Feral Curse is now available in hardcover and e-book and Feral Nights
is now available in paperback from Candlewick Press in North America. Both books are likewise now available on audio from Brilliance. Future releases are pending from Walker Books in the U.K. and Walker Australia and New Zealand. Learn more at Feral Curse: Giant Steps Through the Ashes, and enter to win at the six-book giveaway!

What else? I’m busy this week with media and updating my school visit presentation. See my thoughts on Young Readers & Author Insights. See also 15 Authors and 20 More Authors Who Promote Diversity in School Visits from CBC Diversity.

Preview Feral Curse on audio

Kirkus Reviews says of Feral Curse (Candlewick, 2014): “Campy humor is paired with themes of social justice in this fast-paced, clever second volume in the Feral series….A neat, smart middle novel that clearly sets the stage for an epic showdown between those who champion the rights of shifters and those blind to their humanity.”

The Horn Book praises the “light tone,” “witty banter,” and chimes in: “…as kooky a cast of supernatural characters as ever…but they’re all relatable in various ways and easy to root for. Debut character Kayla—level-headed, religious, but also quietly proud of her shifter nature—holds her own, nicely complementing Yoshi’s swagger, Wild Card shifter Clyde’s newfound confidence, and human Aimee’s resourcefulness.”

Over at readergirlz, Lori Ann Grover cheers, “Kayla is a strong female protagonist, perfect for readergirlz, while many will swoon for Yoshi. The pacing is fast, the mystery layered, and the adventure full.”

Preview Feral Nights on audio

Check out my favorite quote from Feral Curse at YA Series Insiders. The book was 14 years in the making, and I’m celebrating with a six-book giveaway! For more information, see Feral Curse: Giant Steps Through the Ashes. See also more new YA releases this week from Rich in Color and even more still from Radical Releases.

Remember last week’s conversation about J.K. Rowling’s take on Ron and Hermione’s marriage

We have an update! See J.K. Rowling backtracks on ‘Harry Potter heresy’: Full interview with Emma Watson in Wonderland magazine shows author qualifying doubts over Ron and Hermione’s marriage by Alison Flood from The Guardian. Peek:

“‘Maybe she and Ron will be alright with a bit of counseling, you know. I wonder what happens at wizard marriage counseling? They’ll probably be fine. He needs to work on his self-esteem issues and she needs to work on being a little less critical,’ Rowling told Watson…” 

Note: Raise your hand if you’re likewise intrigued by the idea of “wizard marriage counseling”!

Kudos to award-winning Austin illustrator Marsha Riti on her new website!

With Meredith Davis & Betty X Davis

Congratulations to the winners of the Betty X Davis Young Writers of Merit Award from Austin SCBWI. Peek:

“…seeks to recognize budding writing talents and to spark enthusiasm for writing among young people.

“This award is named for Betty X Davis, the oldest and most revered member of the Austin SBCWI community.

“Betty has judged many young people’s writing contests and believes these contests help them feel successful at writing, an important lifelong skill….

“Betty X. Davis was born on Nov. 25, 1915, in Akron, Ohio.” 

Note: Betty is my inspiration, a writer’s writer. Learn more about her and this wonderful award. Source: Lindsey Lane.

Personal Links

Nikki Loftin, Cyn & Nikki’s Nighingale’s Nest (Razorbill, 2014)

Cynsational Events

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers will be held June 16 to June 21 at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Keynote speaker: James Dashner; faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Learn about the WIFYR Fellowship Award. See also Alison L. Randall on Choosing a Writing Conference.

Young Readers & Author Insights

Photo of Judy Blume by Carl Lender

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Of late, a law school classmate mentioned how learning about an author enriched his reading experience.

As an author, I have mixed feelings about this.

Part of me feels self-conscious, yearns for privacy and wants the work to speak for itself.

But maybe because I write for young readers, because I used to be one, a bigger part wants to provide that sense of connection and role modeling.

I’m familiar with the limits of literature curriculum (and wish they were dictated by teachers, not politicians).

Given the narrowness of what they’re so often prescribed, I don’t want teens to believe, as I once did, that all authors are long-dead white guys from Europe, England and New England.

Because you know what? I remember when I looked at Judy Blume‘s byline and realized that, like me, she was still alive and, like me, she was a girl.

Okay, a woman, but to get there, she had to have been a girl once upon a time.

And that realization changed “once upon a time” for me forever.

New Interviews With Cynthia Leitich Smith

From teenreads:

“After Blessed (Book 3 in the Tantalize series) was published, I received notes from a half dozen girls who recognized themselves in the Quincie-Brad relationship.

“They recognized the older guy, pushing them toward substance abuse and/or taking advantage of their vulnerabilities. The story made them think, and in some cases, extract themselves from an unhealthy situation.

“I didn’t write the novel with that specific goal in mind. I followed character to plot to theme and didn’t flinch when it led me to tough places, but I’m grateful for that real-world result.”

Read more from teenreads.

From WIFYR:

“By happenstance, it was Halloween. Grandma and I stayed up talking until
dawn. She hauled out old photo albums and told me things I’d never
known before.

“She told me about living downtown with her sisters…the
alcohol still in her father’s basement…her tall, handsome lost love…what
it’s like to be painted nude…and life in Kansas City during the Second
World War.

“We embraced the opportunity to get to know each other as
women, for that night both of us young.”

Read more from Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers.

Cynsational Notes

It’s a new release week here at Cynsations!

Feral Curse is now available in hardcover and e-book and Feral Nights
is now available in paperback from Candlewick Press in North America.
Both books are likewise now available on audio from Brilliance. Future
releases are pending from Walker Books in the U.K. and Walker Australia
and New Zealand.

Learn more and enter the six-book giveaway at Feral Curse: Giant Steps Through the Ashes.

Writing and Illustrating for Young Readers will be held June 16 to June 21 at the Waterford School in Sandy, Utah. Keynote speaker: James Dashner; faculty includes Cynthia and Greg Leitich Smith. Learn about the WIFYR Fellowship Award.

Guest Post: Holly Schindler on The Power of Sticking With It

By Holly Schindler
for Cynthia Leitich Smith‘s Cynsations

I got my master’s degree in the spring of ’01. Basking in the glow of a few short publications (poetry, fiction, lit critique), and armed with the belief that a life as a novelist was mine for the taking, I decided to dive headfirst into my writing career.

This was made possible, of course, because of support from my family—Mom knew it had been a lifetime dream, and encouraged me to stay home, turn the spare bedroom into an office, and devote full-time attention to my writing.

I sincerely thought it’d take a year, maybe a year and a half to write a book—it’d sell—I’d have money in the bank. And I’d be off and running.

That year and a half went by. Then two passed. Because my pursuit of publication started the day after my grad school commencement ceremony, when a new graduation season rolled around, I’d watch another bunch of caps and gowns parade during the nightly news, and I’d think: “There’s one more year.” Three years went by. Four.

At the four-year mark, I had a serious down-in-the-dumps time. A time when I had to ask myself, “Am I really going to keep doing this?”

In all honesty, I hadn’t really made much progress. Hadn’t really even started to get “good” rejections, those in which the editor takes time to give you advice.

Jake helps with writing

Four years bugged me, I think, because my marker for how much time had passed was tied into school (graduation season), and because it had taken four years to get out of high school. Four years to get my undergrad degree. Now, I was four years into a pursuit of publication, and I felt like all I had to show for it was the hole in the office drywall I’d created after four years of slamming my skull against it.

 (And I wasn’t used to failure, frankly. I’d been a 4.0 student. I’ve always been Type-A to the Max—and a child of the ‘80s, as you can tell by that phrase. I’d worked hard, but I’d excelled at everything I’d tried to do, too.)

I was reminded point-blank that nothing was holding me at home—I could abandon the full-time writing pursuit and get a full-time job… But sometimes, when you see the door is open, you realize the last thing you want to do is walk through it.

I’d already been teaching music lessons for a while, part-time, in order to pay my bills. And I’d been surprised at just how familiar those kids were to the ones I’d known when I was in school.

So I put my bad feelings aside, got my butt in the seat, and I decided to get back to work, this time drafting work for those familiar young readers…Five years went by. Six. At this point, I had a stack of manuscripts that literally stretched from the floor to the ceiling.

Seven years. Seven and a half. Finally , I got an offer—for a YA titled A Blue So Dark (the book released with Flux in ’10).

Two hours after I accepted the offer, an agent called, offering representation for a middle grade novel I’d sent the previous fall. I accepted that offer, as well. That middle grade the agent offered to represent was The Junction of Sunshine and Lucky (my first middle grade novel, which released Feb. 6, 2014).

The Junction was actually the first book I wrote after that down-in-the-dumps time, right around the four-year mark. The first draft wasn’t a middle grade novel—it was a picture book. But the first editors I approached (pre-agent) told me it shouldn’t be a picture book at all (the concept of folk art was too advanced for readers of that age).

Reinventing a 1,000-word picture book as a 45,000-word MG novel wasn’t easy, but that’s what led me to my agent. Even once I had an agent, it still took a year and half of submissions, rejections, and revisions before she sold the book to Dial/Penguin.

That’s the thing about writing—every author has his or her own journey. And you never know when you’re going to hit on an idea or finish a manuscript that finally sells. It’s takes a lot of butt-in-the-chair time, and a lot of listening when spot-on advice does come your way.

Eventually, after putting in the work, you’ll have a book on the shelf with your name on the spine—right there next to the hole in the wall shaped like your skull.

Cynsational Notes

Look for Holly Schindler at facebook, Twitter, YA Outside the Lines, and Smack Dab in the Middle.

Don’t miss Holly Schindler’s Middles, featuring reviews from young readers.

New Voice: Heather Demetrios on Something Real

By Cynthia Leitich Smith
for Cynsations

Heather Demetrios is the first-time author of Something Real (Henry Holt, 2014)(excerpt). From the promotional copy:

Seventeen-year-old Bonnie™ Baker has grown up on TV—she and her twelve siblings are the stars of one-time hit reality show “Baker’s Dozen”. 

Since the show’s cancellation and the scandal surrounding it, Bonnie™ has tried to live a normal life, under the radar and out of the spotlight. But it’s about to fall apart…because “Baker’s Dozen” is going back on the air. 

Bonnie™’s mom and the show’s producers won’t let her quit and soon the life she has so carefully built for herself, with real friends (and maybe even a real boyfriend), is in danger of being destroyed by the show. 

Bonnie™ needs to do something drastic if her life is ever going to be her own—even if it means being more exposed than ever before.

What is it like, to be a debut author in 2014? What do you love about it? What are the challenges? What came as the biggest surprise? In each case, why?

It’s a pretty amazing time to be a YA author and I think it’s especially great to be debuting with a contemporary realism in 2014 because I keep hearing more and more that readers are looking for good stories about characters from the “real world.” For a while there, it seemed like all anyone wanted to read was fantasy/paranormal lit.

I also write fantasy and am thankful that YA embraces the genre so much, but it’s great to see excitement surrounding my contemporary novel. I love that there are so many amazing book bloggers out there who are passionate about books and joygasming over everything that’s coming out.

I didn’t realize just how vibrant the YA community was until I started focusing on my social networking more, especially Twitter. It’s really beautiful to see such enthusiasm about a category I love so much (YA) and have often felt forced to defend to people who think what I write isn’t as legitimate as, say, an adult novel.

I’ve made a lot of new friends through Twitter, even though the only reason I started using it was to get the word out about my debut novel. Now, I confess, I’m addicted!

I think the biggest challenge is the increasing pressure to “market” yourself as a writer. My publicist and the marketing team at Macmillan/Henry Holt are great, don’t get me wrong. This is just the new norm in publishing.

As a writer—and I would argue that specifically as a YA writer—we need to be out there in the YA community, creating a public profile and weighing in on everything from the hottest new YA trend to our publishing process to who our newest book boyfriend is (Levi from Fangirl by Rainbow Rowell (St. Martin’s, 2013)).

In a way, this is pretty awesome. I think now more than ever, writers have the privilege of getting to interact with their readers one on one. It’s been amazingly gratifying to get messages on Goodreads or tweets from readers who have been touched by my work. It is just so incredibly cool and pretty much my favorite part of this whole process.

That being said, I spend a lot more time on social networking than I ever have before and it certainly can be difficult to go from trying to promote your book and being active in the YA scene to trying to write your next one. I constantly need to remind myself to keep my creative Zen.

I know writers everywhere are facing this challenge. My big thing is to not check my email. Because these days, it all feels important. Whether it’s one of my editors with a question about the cover or my agent or a blogger who’s a stop in my blog tour, it’s pretty rare that I don’t want to answer my email right now. But this blocks creative flow and takes you out of that mindset you need to be in, where you’re connected to your characters, immersed in your world, and playing with words.

I’ve been lucky, too, to have so many wonderfully supportive people in my life, from writer friends to classmates to mentors. These people keep me in check. One of my mentors, A.M. Jenkins, told me that my writing needs to feed me and that I need to protect my core, so to speak.

As writers, we have to be careful not to get so swept up in all the hoopla that we lose track of why we’re here in the first place: the work.

VCFA

Perhaps the biggest surprise has been my inability to enjoy all of this as much as I’d like to. The past few months leading up to my launch have been so busy, not just with my debut, but with the other four books I have under contract and the work I’m doing on my MFA (I’m getting an MFA in Writing for Children and Young Adults from Vermont College of Fine Arts).

My husband is constantly telling me to soak all of this up, and he’s right—you only get to be a debut author once!

I was recently able to quit my day job and that’s an exhilarating and terrifying place to be. A dream come true, yes, but a dream that I want to live in for more than a year or two. So I’m constantly worrying about the next book, or if I’m doing enough to promote my debut, or if I’ve tweeted enough on a given day. But when I get to hold my real finished book in my hands, I’m definitely going to do a serious book shimmy.

As a contemporary fiction writer, how did you deal with the pervasiveness of rapidly changing technologies? Did you worry about dating your manuscript? Did you worry about it seeming inauthentic if you didn’t address these factors? Why or why not?

This is a really important issue in my debut novel because it’s about a girl who’s on a reality TV show with her family. So, first, you’ve got reality TV itself, which has only really been around for about twelve years. It’s a phenomenon that might be over by the end of the decade (or it might not, but who knows?). My whole premise might date the book or at least have it be a bit of a time capsule item, but I decided to go for it because I felt the story was worthy of the time and effort it takes to make a book.

In addition to that, Something Real has lots of interpolations, from Twitter feeds to gossip blogs. In this case, I just had to go with the technology that was pervasive during this time in my protagonist’s life.

When you’re a reality TV star, the media is on you like white on rice. I really wanted to show how she is in the middle of a media storm and the interpolations often reflect the different fronts of this war on her privacy.

They’re also, in my opinion, part of what makes the book unique and they give me an opportunity to widen the narrative circle a bit, since the rest of the book is in first person.

Because the book takes place in the present, I also have characters using cell phones and chatting online. This wasn’t too bad until I realized in my first-pass pages that the language I was using for a chat session my protagonist, Bonnie™, was already outdated—I used the abbreviation “IM” and suddenly thought: wait, if you’re on gchat, do you call it ‘instant messenger’? No, you don’t.

So my editor and I went back and forth, trying to figure out what language we could use that wouldn’t date the book too much. Saying my protagonist was on gchat was something we decided against, since who knows how long gchat will actually be around? We went with “message” as in, “Patrick messaged me.” It felt weird, but it was what worked out best.

I envy people who write historical fiction or other genres that don’t have to rely so much on reflecting a teen’s society as it is now (my current fantasy trilogy takes place in Los Angeles, but thankfully moves to the jinni realm, where my characters use magic and swords and ride gryphons).

Everything is changing so much that it is really easy to date your book, and I think you can only worry about that so much.

If there are places where you can cut down on technology, great. But you have to keep it real—teens are not writing notes in class now, they’re texting. So unless you can give us a real reason why they’re not texting the person sitting across the room (like, a cell phone ban in the school or a note that is more of an artistic statement than a conveyance of information), you have to go with what your character would really be doing.

I think in terms of authenticity, you have to tell your character’s story. If she’s living in the twenty-first century, technology is going to be a big part of her daily life. However, I don’t think it’s something a writer should rely too heavily on.

The pervasiveness of technology forces us to think of creative solutions (for example, if a character is lost and you don’t want them to be able to pull up their Google maps, then you’re going to have to create some unique and interesting circumstances or motivations, right?).

I do think it’s something writers need to be very aware of. If you don’t want your book to be too dated, keep pop culture references to a minimum and create scenarios in which technology doesn’t take center stage.

Ultimately, I know Something Real has a chance to last for a while because what’s going to draw the reader to the book is Bonnie™’s fight for privacy and sovereignty, not how she chats with boys online or texts her BFF.

Heather’s office

Heather’s office from another angle